Introducing 2014 Literary Debutante: Molly Antopol

UNAMERICANS1On May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books. This week, we’re talking with literary debutante Molly Antopol, author of One Story issue #132, “The Quietest Man.”

The voices that populate Molly Antopol’s remarkable debut collection, The UnAmericans, are both foreign and familiar. Foreign in the sense that they span across the globe and time, from Communist-era Prague to modern-day Brooklyn; familiar in the sense that they feel lived in, fully embodied, told in the intimate, compassionate manner that the best family tales are. The stories share echoes with many great masters of the form from the past – Paley, Malamud, Bellow – but Molly also forges her own unique path through the tangles of history. As Jesmyn Ward, who selected Molly as one of 2013’s 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honorees, said, “This book isn’t simply powerful and important—it’s necessary.” We definitely agree.

Thanks to Molly for taking the time to answer a few questions about her work and the writing life for One Story.

1. Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

I was in New York doing book stuff, and that day was hanging out with my good friend Stuart Nadler. His new novel, Wise Men, had come out that day, and we were toasting to that when I got the call about my book. Over the years there had been many other times when Stuart and I had catastrophied about our writing and stressed over when we’d finally finish our books, so it was a wonderful thing to get to celebrate our two books coming into the world at the same time.

2. Your One Story “The Quietest Man” came out in March 2010. What has happened since then? How has your writing changed and what has remained the same?

Right now I’m working on essays, and on a novel, The After Party, which is set in the U.S and Israel. When I was working on my collection, I felt like I was pouring everything I had into whatever story I was writing—and so there was something intensely gratifying about starting fresh with a new setting, time period and cast of characters to research and explore, getting to see the world from a completely different vantage each time. I worried about what it would feel like to be in the heads of the same characters for as many years as it takes me to write a novel, but so far—at least in this early stage—it’s been pretty enjoyable to wake up and think about the same people every day.

3. You mentioned back then in your interview with One Story that, “I love the feeling of trying to understand what it would have been like to live in another place or during a different time,” and you do such a lovely, seamless job of inhabiting a great variety of voices in your collection. What story or voice was the most challenging to write? Which did you enjoy the most?

Thank you! To be honest, all of the stories were hard. Every one of them took at least a year to write—and the book itself took a decade. It was really important to me to try to write convincingly from the perspectives of women and men, young and old, American, Israeli and European. While I don’t have any stories in the book about women living in San Francisco and teaching creative writing, I do feel that my stories are autobiographical in the sense that they capture what I obsessed over and questioned during the years I was writing them. Interestingly, the hardest story to write was the one most closely related to my own life, “A Difficult Phase.” Like my narrator, I’d also once dated an older man who had a child and a complicated backstory—and it was only years later, when I was back in the town where we used to live, that I started thinking about the dynamics of that triangular relationship, and the complicated repercussions my leaving must have had on his son.

I really enjoyed writing “Retrospective.” That was the last story I worked on for the collection, and because it was a longer piece, I gave myself more room to breathe and try some technical things I hadn’t yet attempted in the book. And it was a lot of fun learning more about the underground art movement in Russia and the museum world of Jerusalem—in addition to an insane amount of time in the archives (my favorite nerdy pastime), I got grants to travel to Eastern Europe and Israel for it, and ended up talking a lot with former dissident artists and museum curators. 

4. Your book’s title carries echoes of McCarthy’s infamous crusade in the 1950’s and many of the stories take as their subjects characters that are often identified with an outsider status – Communists, dissidents, immigrants. What drew you to these cultures and periods in history? What do you hope modern readers learn from them?

Many of these stories were inspired by my family history, notably their involvement in the Communist Party. I come from a big family of storytellers, and I grew up surrounded by tales of surveillance, tapped lines and dinnertime visits from the FBI. I didn’t know my grandfather well—he died when I was six—but a little more than a decade ago my family gained access to his FBI files. The reports followed him across the years and across the country. In the files, I was able to see exactly what the FBI was looking for, but nothing else. They showed nothing of the angst that led him to quit the Party, and how painful it was for him to learn of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin—for him to realize that the cause he’d dedicated his life to was corrupt. And they didn’t reveal what being surveilled might actually have felt like for his children—what being watched does to a family psychologically and emotionally. Those were questions I found myself exploring in the book.

It’s interesting—though my family loves to tell stories, the one place I never heard about was Antopol, the Belarusian village where my relatives came from, which was virtually destroyed during World War II. A little more that a decade ago I was living in Israel and wound up at a holiday party in Haifa, where I met an elderly woman from Antopol. It was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. She led me to an oral history of the village, written in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. The moment I finished reading it, I began writing The UnAmericans.

5. When did you know that you had a collection on your hands and what was the revision process like for you? Do you have any advice for writers currently working on a book manuscript?

In the beginning, I thought a lot about the difference between writing individual stories and putting together a collection—I was concerned that the stories weren’t related to one another in a neat enough way. In addition to the McCarthy-era stories, others are set in Eastern Europe, where my family’s originally from and where I’ve spend a good deal of time myself; while others take place in Israel, where I live a few months every year and used to live full-time, working at an Israeli-Palestinian human rights group and with new immigrants from Russia and Chechnya. I was about halfway through writing the book when I realized my stories all explored, in some way or another, the triangle between Cold War-era East European politics, Jewish American liberalism and the effect they had on contemporary Israel. But that was totally subconscious. And it was only once all the stories were finished that I discovered they weren’t linked by setting or character but by a question I hadn’t even realized I’d been asking myself: What are the complicated—and sometimes devastating—effects that one person’s quest to improve the world have on the people closest to them?

In terms of writing advice, I heard Philip Roth speak once and he said something that really stuck with me: never let people read your early drafts unless you’re certain they’re on your side.

6. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?

Meeting the other writers being honored that night. And trying out some new dance moves.

Introducing 2014 Literary Debutante: Celeste Ng

On May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books. This week, we’re talking with literary debutante Celeste Ng, author of One Story issue 86 “What Passes Over.”

Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, begins, “Lydia is dead.” We then follow each of the Lees, a Chinese-American family living in Ohio, as they struggle to understand what happened to Lydia and what led to her death. A beautiful portrait of the complexities between parents and children, brothers and sisters, and husbands and wives, Everything I Never Told You is a family love story you won’t want to miss when it hits stores this June.

Thank you to Celeste for taking the time to sit down and discuss the seed for this story and cupcakes with me.

1. Where were you when you found out Everything I Never Told You was going to be published by Penguin Press and how did you celebrate? 

I was unbelievably lucky and the book went to auction, so I knew when the bids were going to come in.  I was at home when my agent called with the news, and I wish I could say I went right out and celebrated all night. But I literally hung up the phone and ran directly to my son’s preschool to pick him up (a bit late!).  Honestly, having a young toddler at the time helped keep me grounded during that crazy time. I had this great news, but I also had a two-year-old in front of me demanding lunch and a nap—nothing like that to bring you back down to earth. And I couldn’t get a sitter on such short notice, so my husband and I just ended up ordering takeout and cupcakes that evening.  Exciting, no?


2. The first sentence of Everything I Never Told You is: “Lydia is dead.” How did you decide to begin the book this way? What was the seed for this story?

That last sentence didn’t click into place until the last draft. Up until then, every draft had begun, “At first they don’t know where Lydia has gone”—a very different tone, one that withholds information rather than revealing it. But I felt that readers needed that information right up front. Otherwise, the focus is on whether Lydia is alive or dead, when what exactly happened—and why—is really the point of the novel. And I liked the bluntness of the opening, that sense of putting the narrative cards right on the table.

The novel has its roots, very indirectly, in an anecdote my husband told me: when he was a kid, a boy he knew pushed his own little sister into a lake. She was rescued, but I started wondering what it might have been like for her to plunge underwater, what this brother-sister dynamic might have been like (both before and after), and what would have happened in her family if she hadn’t been saved. The story ultimately morphed into something quite different—in the novel, Lydia is a teenager, for one thing—but it all started with that image of a girl falling into deep water.

3. One of my favorite aspects of this book is the complex dynamic between the three children: Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah. Lydia is her parents’ favorite child, yet it seems that Nathan and Hannah not only accept that fact but are actually able to flourish because of it, almost as if they are grateful to Lydia for bearing the brunt of all expectations. Which of the three children is your favorite? Is there one in particular that you identify with?

I empathize with Lydia a great deal, having been a teenage girl once myself, and Nath’s scientific mindset is based on my own, as is his obsession in space: for a large part of my childhood, I dreamed of being an astronaut. But I have a real soft spot for Hannah. Like her, I was the (much) youngest child, and I spent a lot of time listening in on conversations, trying to piece together the lives of my elders. I collected objects that were unwanted by others but that were deeply significant, almost totems, to me.  In fact, I still do. And as a kid I loved finding cozy nooks to hide in—under tables, on window seats behind the curtains, in closets.  She’s probably the character I feel most akin to.

4. Throughout the book, we jump from different characters perspectives as the family grapples with Lydia’s death. I was amazed at how flawless the change in perspective flowed throughout the storyline even with flashbacks. Which perspective/storyline was the most enjoyable for you to write? Which one was the most difficult?

I really enjoyed writing the sections when Marilyn and James met—love stories are fun—and the parts that take place in 1966, when Lydia and Nath are young. It was pure joy to research the details to flesh out those worlds, like watching the news coverage of Gemini 9 and researching old cookbooks (Marilyn’s is based on my mom’s own Betty Crocker).  The most difficult parts, for me, were when Marilyn and James grappled directly with their daughter’s death—especially after my son was born. Writing about parents losing a child became very emotionally difficult, almost viscerally so: sometimes I’d finish writing and need to sneak into my son’s room just to watch him sleep for a while.

5. What are you looking forward to most at the Debutante Ball on May 22nd?

Partying with old friends and meeting other writers I’ve admired from afar (including the other debutantes!).  And dressing up—does anyone have enough opportunities to do that?

Introducing 2014 Literary Debutante: James Scott

theKeptOn May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books. This week we’re talking with James Scott about his novel The Kept, which was published by Harper in January and called “a haunting narrative” by The New York Times. James made his One Story debut with issue #96, “The Strings Attached.”

The Kept is a gripping story, full of mystery and complex characters. Set in upstate New York at the turn of the twentieth century, it opens with the scene of a tragic murder. The only survivors, Elspeth Howell and her son Caleb, embark on a journey through the harsh winter landscape to find the men responsible. What begins as a revenge story becomes an intricate and compelling narrative of a mother and son, their late-blooming relationship and harbored secrets.

Our thanks to James for taking the time to talk about upstate New York, his influences, and finding light within darkness.

1. Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

The book hadn’t been out to editors for long, and I had yet to process the idea that people were reading it (I think this is called denial) so when I was heading out the door one morning and my agent called and asked me if I wanted to talk to an editor, I said, “About what?”

I wish I had a better celebration story, the kind involving a speed boat or, at the very least, jet skis, but because the process is gradual, with the interest and the discussions and the decision and the contract and everything in between and after, I wasn’t sure when to party. (This will be the title of my autobiography: When Do I Party?) My wife encouraged me, though, to revel in it a bit, and we went to a nice dinner.

2. The Kept takes place at the turn of the 20th century in the desolate and harsh landscape of upstate New York. What drew you to this time period and location?

My grandparents lived in upstate New York. I have enough memory of the place to remember the feeling and yet not enough to be beholden to the truth, which is the balance I like to strike. The lake effect snows are the real deal. In this context, ‘real deal’ means something between ‘frightening’ and ‘massively depressing.’ The snow falls as hard and fast as rain. That seemed like a good place to set this kind of story, which is gothic and full of revenge and murder and lies and misdeeds. I love Southern gothic tales especially, but when I started writing, I’d never been to the South, and so the best I could do was upstate New York.

The time period (1897) seemed like one of the last times people could hide as effectively as the Howell family has. The world as a whole was on the precipice of a horrific war and technological marvels and all of it with increasing speed. That notion—of being on the verge, about to plunge downhill—informed the color and tone of the book as well.

3. What kind of research did you do to write this historical novel? Were you inspired by any real places when creating the seedy town of Watersbridge or the violent Elm Inn?

Oh, lots of research. I was worried about getting too involved in the details and so I promised myself to only look up information when I needed it. Still, I read newspapers from the time and spent hours flipping through mail order catalogues, which contain just about anything you might want. Elspeth gets a job cutting ice from the lake, and that research was easy because there are old timey festivals where people still do it. If only Disney’s Frozen had come out while I was writing, I wouldn’t have needed to even look that far.

The hardest research was about midwifery. I spent a lot of time in college libraries reading dissertations and very dry histories of midwife practices. Eventually, I vented to a friend, who, magically, had a friend who not only was a midwife but studied the history as well. What I’d spent three years trying to find she gave me in a fifteen-minute conversation. The lesson, as always, is to not wait to complain.

As far as the setting, I was inspired by the landscape I remembered from my childhood, but nothing too specific. Those places in the book were probably more inspired by other books and films than any real locations or experiences. It will surprise readers to know I’ve actually spent very little time in brothels.

4. Human darkness seems to pervade the novel and its characters—like the murderous brothel owner, London White, and even young Caleb with his constant curiosity about men who kill. What was your fascination with this theme? Did you find some connection between humankind and the harsh northern frontier that you so strongly depict?

It was a tough place to spend eight plus years, I can tell you that much. The story I wanted to tell was a dark one, and it’s certainly populated by characters that are able to navigate that world, but I spent a lot of my time trying to find the light or hope in all of the characters. Even the worst of them has positive traits.

My world view is not as dark as the book’s; it is, after all, fiction. But I’m going to repeat myself to say a couple of things I feel very deeply about this book: 1) I needed a story and a series of settings that could pull what I wanted to from the characters, and that meant something forceful and alarming and rough and 2) I’d rather look for moments of light within darkness than to punish people living in the light by putting them through something dark.

5. This story is very much one of revenge and mystery. When it comes to other stories of those themes, do you have any favorites or influences?

A drive as simple as revenge was a bedrock for the book. But I try to use those elements in the same way as the Southern Gothics I love so much—as a means to explore something deeper about the world, as a path into something more meaningful.

My hope is that both of those things (mystery and revenge) take a back seat as the book goes on and as the drama between the characters and their growing relationship (they’ve never spent much time together before) takes over. I actually became so wrapped up in this aspect of the book that in the first couple of drafts, the mystery wasn’t really answered. It wasn’t important to how I saw the book. My agent, however, very wisely advised me that readers would probably want to know what happened. I guess that’s something readers care about, wanting to know what happened. Who knew?

6. You begin The Kept very boldly with a description of the murdered Howell children. Can you talk a bit about the choice to open the novel with that scene?

It’s strange—the novel has started with that scene since the very beginning, so I haven’t thought much about why. I can’t think of another way to start it. I also knew that the book would be tough for some people to take, and so there was no point in waiting to see. I had no interest in actually showing the children being murdered, so starting in scene with the killings was out.

Obviously it was hard to write. I had to think a lot about the loss of those children, and how to encapsulate that loss and their personalities in such a small space (anything too long and the book would have been stuck in the mire before having a chance to get going). But out of the entire book, that section is the least reworked. The idea had been in my head so long, perhaps, that it came out close to finished.

It’s been really gratifying to hear from people who read that scene, fell into the book, and basically read it straight through. That’s my favorite compliment.

6. Are you working on anything new right now?

I’ve started another novel, set in the 1990s in Vermont. The main character owns an architectural salvage store and he’s also a volunteer diver when someone goes missing or drowns in the town. The Kept has me pretty busy, so I haven’t had much time to work on it, though I recently got away on a retreat and I’m a bit more than a quarter of the way through.

7. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball?

This may sound corny, but I can’t wait to celebrate with my friends, old and new. I’ve known Celeste, Jamie, Molly, and Rachel for varying lengths of time, and I have read and adored each of their books.

This has all been exciting and overwhelming to say the least, and it will be amazing, weird, incredible and about a thousand other adjectives to be with a group of massively talented people who are also new to this very particular combination of sensations. I’ve known Hannah Tinti for ten years now (which is insane in and of itself) and she’s been such a great friend, editor, supporter and role model that being able to thank her will be a great—and rare—treat. I think that’s the most wonderful thing about this event, honestly, the ability to say thank you.

Introducing 2014 Literary Debutante: Rachel Cantor

rachel-cantor-book-cover

On May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball,One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books. This week, we’re talking with literary debutante Rachel Cantor, who made her debut in One Story with issue #98, “Picnic After the Flood.”

The title of Cantor’s novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, is a whooping 82 characters long. Considering the cover––bold yellow letters levitating in a deep purple outer space––and scanning the pages for the first time, I wondered if the lengthy title was a sign of all the quirky-goodness crammed into this short tale.

This optimistic techno-dystopian satire follows our earnest and lovable unlikely hero, Leonard, his precocious nephew, and his warrior librarian girlfriend as they travel through space and time to save the world not once, but three times. In 252 pages, Cantor covers space, time-travel, love, personal growth, cultural and political criticism, generationally transmitted wisdom, Jewish mysticism, and pizza.   

The answer to my question is a dizzying, emphatic yes.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Rachel Cantor about her first book, meditation, revision, and time-traveling.

1. You’ve published a lot of short fiction, but this is your first published novel. Congratulations! What did it feel like to hold the completed manuscript, and what did you do to celebrate when it got picked up by Melville House?

I was at a residency (Virginia Center for the Creative Arts) while I waited to hear from Melville House. I already knew they wanted A Highly Unlikely Scenario—they picked that up almost immediately upon reading it—but I had to wait to learn whether they were also interested in a second novel (currently titled Door Number Two). The deal depended on the second book because, much as I loved Melville House, I didn’t want to go from house to house if I could help it. So I was on pins and needles, as they say, while also trying to write new work, and trying to be cool about it, which is to say, not talking about it with anyone outside my family. But when I got the word at VCCA that they wanted both books, I couldn’t contain myself: I was so overjoyed, I think I told anyone who was around—visual artists who’d maybe just arrived and didn’t know who I was, office staff, a composer or two. Fellow debutante James Scott happened to be at VCCA when I got the news, though; I was especially pleased to share the news with him.

2. You’ve worked in so many places: Rome, Senegal, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Brooklyn to name a few; it seems traveling and exploring is an essential part of who you are as a person and writer. Since you’ve traveled much of this world, do you think writing A Highly Unlikely Scenario was a way to explore unexplored frontiers: space, time, and mystical realms?

That’s an interesting question. I think Leonard is a beginner’s-mind traveler: he’s a virtual shut-in before he’s called upon to save the world, so everything he encounters is new, and fascinating, and scary, even the contours of his own town. He’s so nervous to take a caravan to the University Library, he’s shaking and eventually throws up into a jujuberry bush. Of course, he becomes more confident as the book goes on, so that by the time he’s forced to time travel he’s able to bring extraordinary attention to his surroundings. I don’t travel now as much as I used to, but when I do, I try to bring a beginner’s mind with me, I hope to experience that kind of wonder. But I can’t get close to what Leonard experiences—receptivity is Leonard’s Special Gift, after all! He’s so absorbed by what he sees that he can go into an altered state. I don’t experience altered states when I travel, unless you count the semi-psychosis I sometimes experience with jet lag: mostly I’m working, which means I shuttle between hotel and office, office and hotel, worrying about deadlines and did I remember to take my malaria pill. More generally, I think fiction is always a way to explore unexplored frontiers, whether you’re writing about mystical realms or the mysteries of the heart; A Highly Unlikely Scenario does investigate a potential future as well as the distant past, but the frontiers I’m probably most interested are still the mysteries of the heart.

3. In other interviews, you mention the seed of Leonard’s epic tale came to you on a Jewish meditation retreat. I meditate myself, and couldn’t help wonder if Leonard serves as a delightful stand-in for any burgeoning meditator. When we begin, Leonard complacently fields complaints in his “White Room” (a literally colorless, boring, muted space); only after receiving the call from Marco Polo does he embark on the lively, colorful, perplexing and difficult quest to save the world with his superhero power of ‘receptivity.’ I would describe my experience of the world pre- and post-mindfulness training similarly. Did you consciously draw these parallels when writing? Or did Leonard and his journey emerge from your subconscious by chance?

Leonard could definitely be seen as a figure for the burgeoning meditator (and I love that you correctly identify his Special Gift as a superpower!). The root of the word Kabbalah is ‘to receive,’ and Leonard, as I suggested earlier, has meditative qualities I admire and wish I could emulate. The White Room tells us something of the blank slate, the unformed state, which is Leonard before things start to happen. But however complacent he might be at the beginning of the book, his mind isn’t empty. It would be like anyone else’s: full of monkeys creating havoc! He has the potential to listen, of course, it’s his job to be a Listener, but like most of us, he is almost always distracted. When he does learn how to bring awareness to himself and his environment, he experiences something of the beautiful complexity of the world, and its essential simplicity. Which makes the book sound more high-falutin’ than it is. Leonard is a yogi, but he’s also a lonely recluse and a concerned uncle and a somewhat clueless brother who becomes Marco Polo’s closest friend, falls in love with a warrior-librarian, saves the world three times, and finds time to put mealie pudding out for the neighborly cat.

4. The Neetsa Pizza galaxy is rich with made-up and historic details, and it has its own complicated set of rules. It is a great feat that you were able to create such a consistent world. How did you keep all of it straight in the earlier drafts? Did you have to delete and refine this ‘unlikely scenario’ again and again? If so, I’m curious: what number draft do you consider the published version of A Highly Unlikely Scenario?

How funny! It wasn’t at all difficult to keep the details in this novel straight, and what revisions I did were mostly to tighten the narrative rather than to correct any inconsistencies. The book I have coming out in 2015 is a much more “conventional” narrative and I had to work much harder to keep those details straight—which Manhattan street are they walking on now, where do they turn right, which bus do they take crosstown, what day of the week is September 6, 1999, did I mess up my timeline so it’s really September 5 … In Leonard’s world, everything’s made up so I could do what I wanted—who would call me inconsistent if I decided Leonard ate grasshopper legs one day and haggis tarts the next? The only thing I really had to remember was who was wearing what (had Sally changed out of her orange-skin gown by the time they escaped the Baconian safehouse, was Leonard wearing his flowered climbing suit or his suave army pants when he landed in medieval Rome). For next year’s book, I wrote five million drafts (roughly), for A Highly Unlikely Scenario, maybe two or three. The only time I had to be careful with Scenario was in the scenes in Rome. I did a lot of research for that section, kept a lot of notes, looked at a lot of maps, and was more or less precise about the route Leonard and Sally take on their journey and what they see there.

5. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Deb Ball on May 22nd? 

You know, every time I go to the One Story Literary Deb Ball, I cry: watching those beautiful debutantes and their wonderful mentors, it really moves me. I know how hard everyone’s worked to get their first book published, how much luck is involved, how many dreams have come true because of that book—not just the dreams of the author but the dreams of their families, teachers, publishers, and friends. So I guess I’m looking forward, as always, to seeing those shining faces!

Introducing 2014 Literary Debutante: Amelia Kahaney

BHOn May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball,One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we will be introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books.

This week we’re discussing first books with Amelia Kahaney, whose YA novel The Brokenhearted was published by HarperTeen in October and called “an action-packed, adventure-laced debut” by Publishers Weekly. Amelia made her One Story debut back in 2007 with “Fire Season.”

The Brokenhearted is an engrossing novel with a solid core of noble heart. Anthem Fleet, ballerina-turned-vigilante is a heroine for the ages–one who defies the life that society has given her in order to be with, and then save, the one she loves. By the end of the book, Anthem has become even more than that, though, and is well on her way to becoming a symbol of rebellion for a society on the cusp of riotous change. “Go ahead and try” says author Adele Griffin “to predict the hairpin turns and steep reverses as you race through this sharply–conceived urban odyssey.”

Our thanks to Amelia Kahaney for speaking with us about first books, voice, and the image that inspired her to write The Brokenhearted.

The Brokenhearted is a story about a young ballerina vigilante in a quasi-dystopic society who is sort-of-accidentally given superpowers. The imagery is bizarre, gorgeous, and unique; what was the first image or idea that came to you and inspired The Brokenhearted? 

I knew I wanted to write a superhero story set in a city with a vast divide between rich and poor, and the Occupy movement popped up just when I most needed inspiration in building the world of the book. The original call to arms from Adbusters that sparked the first Occupy protest absolutely floored me in its emotional power, and I had it hanging above my desk for months as I wrote the first draft. occupyI love the juxtaposition of soft and hard, of art, commerce, and revolution. The fragile strength of the dancer on top of the brute aggression of the Wall Street bull, all surrounded by tear gas and masked protestors, epitomized the world as a place of good and evil, as a place that needs saving. The simplicity of the image (and of course the ballet component) worked with the aesthetic of the superhero story I was trying to build, and the girl on the bull guided me whenever I lost my way in the first draft.

You’ve written for both a YA and an adult audience. In The Brokenhearted and “Fire Season,” your One Story issue, you have the ability to balance two very distinctive voices. Is there a difference in your approach for each? 

A short story may start with a sledgehammer, but the drafting process always ends with the painstaking use of toothpick-sized tools to whittle it into the final product. In contrast, the novels I’ve been writing feel more like throwing plot grenades at the page and then sculpting the wreckage into shapes that make sense.

The challenge of creating movement on the page is the same for both, but short stories require more ruthlessness and economy, more precise emotional calibration, whereas the young adult novels I’ve been working on are looser in their form but demand a ton of action that all has to make emotional sense. The novels also have to be written quite quickly to meet the publisher’s deadlines. So my approach has been different for sure, and the voice in the Brokenhearted books has by necessity been a less interior, less idiosyncratic narration than I’ve ever used in a short story, as I’m more concerned in these books with finding a consistency of tone that allows me to nail the action and pacing.

Your story “Fire Season” was published as Issue #98 in One Story. What has happened in your life between the publication of “Fire Season” and the publication of The Brokenhearted? How did you celebrate when you found out that The Brokenhearted had been accepted for publication?

The Brokenhearted sold to HarperTeen on April 20, 2012 – the day of the One Story Debutante Ball. So after some screaming, calling my mom, hugging my husband and trying to explain to my then-four-year-old what had just happened, I floated down to the Invisible Dog and made merry. It seemed a great coincidence to be surrounded by my first literary champions on the day I was embraced by a set of new champions at Harper.

As far as what has happened between the two publications, I couldn’t really tell you. The highlight may have been having and raising a baby, who is now almost six years old. I also ghostwrote three tween novels, got and lost and got some jobs, visited Maine and Puerto Rico, learned to cook paella, and acquired crow’s feet. All the usual things have happened. On the writing front, the main thing that happened is I learned to write young adult novels and to manage the anxiety of deadlines.

The Brokenhearted has been optioned by New Line–what has that process been like for you? What are some of your hopes for The Brokenhearted as a movie? 

My only hope for the movie is that it actually gets made! The optioning process had nothing whatsoever to do with me, except that I received a lovely phone call with the news and then made a few even more lovely calls of my own to family members to share it with them. Not having anything to do with the film makes it that much more fun to think about – there’s absolutely nothing about it that I can screw up, which is such a relief.

I’m so excited to read The Invisible, the second and final book in the Brokenhearted series. When writing The Brokenhearted, did you already know how the story would end in The Invisible? Can you tell me more about the process of writing a series? 

I figured out around draft two of The Brokenhearted that I’d been unconsciously laying the groundwork for an enormous revelation in the second book that would change everything we thought we knew about the main character and her family. (Cue the ominous music here.) Knowing I was building toward this enormous twist, which is revealed in all its bonkers glory toward the end of the second book, was probably the thing that sustained me during the difficult marathon months of writing book two.

The process of writing a series, in my case at least, is that the first book developed reasonably slowly, but the second book had a hard delivery date assigned by the publisher, and that date was not terribly flexible. By the time I had my outline approved by my editor for book two, I only had eight months to get the book from outline to finished, copyedited manuscript. Subtract two months for the time the editor or proofreader had the manuscript, and we’re down to about six months of writing time. Subtract a month of procrastination, and now we are close to the truth, which is that I wrote and edited Book Two in five months, give or take a couple of weeks. At some point during the writing process, I had to just accept that this was the timeframe I had and that I could only do so much at the sentence level because I had to focus as much as possible on the action of the book making sense. The first book took maybe a year and a half all told, so for the second book, I shrunk my writing time to a third of what it had been.

It was a difficult six months that was eased somewhat when a friend sent me Death In The Fifth Position, a catty, hilarious whodunit about a string of murders in a ballet company that Gore Vidal wrote under the pseudonym Edgar Box. Vidal claimed to have written this absolute gem of a book in eight days, and he became my spirit guide while I finished The Invisible. I liked to imagine him laughing bitchily at me in the final weeks, telling me that I ought to have written three books for all the time it was taking me to finish this one.

What are you most looking forward to about the Literary Debutante Ball? (And will you be arriving in ballerina regalia, with or without a super-powered heart?) 

Like any debutante, I care about one thing above all else when I go to a ball: gossip. I look forward to schmoozing with the literary folks I only see a few times a year or on Twitter, and to hanging with my agent, my editor, and the formidable posse of glamour and glitz that is the Brooklyn College MFA alumni. With any luck, there will be literary mini-scandals and prognostications a-plenty to keep all of us entertained.

As for attire, I have the misfortune not to be built like a ballet dancer and so a tutu-esque ensemble of any kind is out of the question. I am considering a black floral headpiece to jazz things up. And thank you for giving me this opportunity to set the record straight: I never go anywhere without a super-powered heart.

Introducing 2014 Literary Debutante: David James Poissant

PoissantOn May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we will be introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books.

This week we are chatting with David James Poissant, whose debut collection The Heaven of Animals was published by Simon and Schuster in March. Jamie made his One Story debut back in 2011 with “Refund”.

As Jamie’s issue editor for “Refund”, I am thrilled to now be able to introduce his collection to all of you. The Heaven of Animals is full of stories that linger long after you have closed the book and turned off the light. Many link thematically, parsing questions about love, redemption, forgiveness, and how we navigate the big moments, both tragic and absurd (often at the same time). As fellow One Story author, Lauren Groff, says of him: “David James Poissant is one of our finest young writers, with a taut and subtle prose style, a deep knowledge of craft, and a heart so vast it encompasses whole worlds.”

Many thanks to Jamie for taking time to speak with One Story about his collection.

Where were you when you found out The Heaven of Animals was going to be published and how did you celebrate?
It’s cliché to say I remember the day like it was yesterday, but I do, I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was a teaching day, a Thursday in September, 2012. I teach fiction writing at the University of Central Florida. That semester, I had two back-to-back undergraduate advanced fiction sections, and for that class we had read Kelcey Parker’s story collection For Sale by Owner. Kelcey Skyped into the first class to discuss the collection with us, which went really well. I had fifteen minutes before the next class, so I decided to check my email. And what I found was an email from my agent, Gail Hochman. The subject line read: YOWEE ZOWEE. The email read: Call me! Good news!

You don’t get an email like that from your agent every day, so I knew what it had to be (we’d been shopping the book around all year), but I didn’t want to let myself get excited. Cautious, I stepped into the hallway. There were students everywhere hustling from one class to another, so I found a quiet corner of the building by a window and called Gail. She gave me the good news, that Millicent Bennett of Simon & Schuster wanted to acquire not just the collection but also my novel in progress. I didn’t cry the way I thought I might every time I imagined getting this news, but I started shaking, as in trembling uncontrollably. I’d been working on the collection for eight years, and it seemed impossible that the dream had finally come true, and not just with any editor, but with Millicent, an editor I’d met at Bread Loaf that summer and with whom I’d felt a deep connection. I was quiet so long, Gail asked if I was okay. “I’m shaking,” I said, and I remember Gail saying, “Oh, honey, don’t shake.”

By the time I got off the phone, I was late for class, so late I didn’t even have time to call Marla, my wife. Gail had cautioned me not to tell anyone but Marla for the next day or two, just in case, just until we were sure that it was a done deal.

I’ve been told I have a terrible poker face, which, that day, proved true. I stepped into the classroom. I don’t know what kind of look was on my face, but all of my students stared at me. They appeared concerned. One asked whether I was sick or something, and I just blurted it out, that my books were going to be published, at which point there were cheers and hugs. “But you can’t say anything!” I said. Then we Skyped with Kelcey, all of us pretending that nothing had just happened.

Later, when I would tell Kelcey about this, she’d say, “What? I would have just cancelled everything and gotten a martini.”

I wanted to wait to tell Marla in person, but I couldn’t stand it, so, after class, I called and told her over the phone. She laughed and cried, then hugged me hard when I got home. The next night, once it was official, we went out to dinner with our daughters. In some ways, I feel like we’ve been celebrating ever since.

One of the things that I’ve always admired in your writing (and I remember this from the first time I read “Refund”) is your ability to throw in the surprising detail without derailing the momentum of the story – these unexpected moments often then become intrinsic to the narrative. I’m thinking of moments like finding the alligator in “Lizard Man” or when Lily takes off her arm in “Amputee”. How often do you surprise yourself? And by that I guess I mean are these moments always part of the plan or do you stumble on them in the course of writing?
I absolutely stumble upon them in the course of the writing. I’m big on the craft philosophy of “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” When I’m writing, I seldom know the direction in which I’m headed. When I begin to feel the story drag, or when I just feel bored, I try to do something big, something startling. I didn’t know that the alligator would appear in “Lizard Man” until I wrote that scene. I didn’t know what Dan would find inside the shoebox at the end of the story until he opened it. I didn’t know that Lily was an amputee until she took off her arm. Writing, I like to surprise myself. The trick, later, in revision, is to make sense of the surprises, so that the surprises, when they happen—and here comes another craft mantra—feel surprising and inevitable.

Religion twists through many of your stories. From casual believers to doubters to fundamentalists to those who’ve run screaming away from it all. What is it about faith (or the lack of it) that interests you?
As a boy, I was brought up in the Southern Baptist Church. I’d like to say that this did some good things for me, but the experience was pretty damaging. I can’t speak to all Baptist churches, but the one in which I was raised espoused beliefs that promoted sexism, homophobia, and racism. In youth group, we were taught that the planet was only a few thousand years old. We were taught abstinence. Sex before marriage was a sin, etc. There was a huge emphasis on guilt and shame, on sin, particularly sexual sin, and on hell and what you had to do or say in order to be sure that wasn’t where you were headed. I can’t tell you the number of times, growing up, that I prayed and begged God not to send me to hell. It was, in short, a bad scene.

I went to college and stopped going to church, then fell in love with the daughter of a Methodist minister. This man didn’t talk about sin or hell. He smoked. He cursed occasionally. I went to church with the woman who would become my wife, and I saw that church, done right, could become a force for good, for social justice and helping those in need.

I still don’t call myself a Methodist and won’t until the Methodist church officially extends all rights and privileges to every member of the LGBTQ community, but my wife and I do attend a Methodist church in Orlando. I still believe in God, but I don’t believe in hell. My idea of God these days is God as Love. I’m not interested in any other kind of God.

So, all of that, in one way or another, probably informs everything that I write. I think that most Americans practice or used to practice one form of faith or another, or they at least believe in something, but this maybe doesn’t get written about as much as it could be in literary fiction. I’m happy to join that conversation in my fiction and nonfiction. I got to write about this a little in an op-ed for The New York Times last year. In response to the piece, I got hundreds of emails, which ran the gamut from people thanking me for my candor to people telling me I’m going to hell.

Currently, I’m at work on a novel that revisits Richard and Lisa, the characters at the center of “The Geometry of Despair,” one of the stories in The Heaven of Animals that deals directly with faith and faith communities. And, yes, that theme pops back up again in a big way.

Certain themes resonate throughout a number of the stories: death, loss and regret, the search for if not redemption, then forgiveness. At what point in writing did you realize you had a cohesive collection? And did you then keep parsing those same themes intentionally or are they simply where your interest was at the time?
I wish that I could say that I worked hard to shape a cohesive collection, but, really, it was a happy accident. For years, I just wrote stories, not worrying too much about whether they’d all find a home between the covers of the same book. In the end, it turned out that I’d been very much preoccupied with ideas of love and death, family and parenthood, and regret and atonement. Many of my stories surround a protagonist seeking to make amends for something he’s done and now regrets. Maybe because of my faith background, maybe because of my move from a philosophy of life preoccupied with shame and punishment toward a philosophy that celebrates forgiveness and redemption, I keep returning to these themes. I’m interested in empathy and in love. I want my readers to feel for my characters, to empathize with them, even if they’d struggle to extend empathy to such people in real life.

Speaking of those themes, you get pretty dark at times. I know you’re also a dad to two lovely and hilarious little girls. How do you find balance and do you ever struggle with bringing your work home?
Usually, I can turn it off. When I’m writing, I’m writing. When I’m teaching, I’m teaching. When I’m with my family, I’m with my family. But there are times my wife will catch me. I’ll be moody or distant, “there but not there,” you know? I’ll be stuck in the novel. But, then, one of my daughters will hug me or tell me a joke, and, when that happens, it’s hard to stay stuck for long.

What are you most looking forward to at the One Story Debutant Ball on May 22nd?
I’m very much looking forward to meeting the other debs, and to meeting Colum McCann, whose work I’ve admired for a long time. But, maybe most of all, I’m looking forward to seeing my agent and editor again. Because I live in Florida and they live in New York, I’ve met each one only once. My agent and I met and talked for about ten minutes at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2006. My editor and I met and talked for a few hours at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2012. All of our other interactions have been over email or over the phone. Which is weird to think about. These two women who have changed my life and to whom I owe so much, and I’ve hardly spent any time with them. If it weren’t for Facebook, I wouldn’t even remember what they look like! I’m definitely looking forward to celebrating with them, to raising a glass, to thanking them in person for all they’ve done for me and for my family.

Introducing 2014 Literary Debutante: Ben Stroud

byzantiumOn May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we will be introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books.

We’re kicking off the interviews with Ben Stroud, whose first story collection, Byzantium, won the 2013 Story Prize Spotlight Award, as well as the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Fiction Prize, and was published by Graywolf Press. Stroud published his story “Eraser” with One Story in 2009.

In Byzantium historical re-imaginings twist together with contemporary stories to reveal startling truths about human nature across the centuries. In the Byzantine court, a noble with a crippled hand is called upon to ensure that a holy man poses no threat to the throne. On an island in Lake Michigan, a religious community crumbles after an ardent convert digs a little too deep. And the detective Jackson Hieronymus Burke rises to fame and falls from favor in two stories that recount his origins in Havana and the height of his success in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. Byzantium was named a Best Summer Book of 2013 by Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. NPR’s Alan Cheuse had this to say: “Talk about a debut, the title story in Ben Stroud’s Byzantium, is not only the best in the book, it’s the best story by a new writer I’ve read in years.”

Our thanks to Ben for taking the time to chat with One Story about finding his voice, historical fiction and what it’s been like to publish his first book.

1. Where were you when you found out Byzantium had been accepted for publication, and what was the first thing you did? Or if the first thing you did was too weird, how did you celebrate?

It was April, 2012 when I found out. I think I was napping. (Napping, by the way, can be critical to the writing process, I think.) I remember my wife brought me the phone and I was annoyed, thinking anybody calling would be bad news. But it was Michael Collier telling me I’d won the Bakeless.

I don’t remember doing anything specific to celebrate. Just sitting around, being excited, then getting back to work on the next thing. Though I may have used the publication as an excuse to eat out someplace fancy.

2. Many of the stories in Byzantium are historical. What is it that motivates you to write about a certain historical moments or characters? And when it comes to those stories that are both historical and in the first-person, what informs the way you write that particular voice?

It begins with a certain fascination. I somehow find myself caught by a moment and want to dig in. So, “Byzantium” came up through a mix of reading Gibbon and Yeats and also Flaubert’s “Herodias” (which takes on a very different time period). Then I dug some more, moving from a sort of romantic vision of the Byzantine Empire to specific moment–searching for the right one. And sometimes the stories come in a chain. I was researching another project (one that never came together) when I came across the figure of Gail Borden and decided I wanted to write about him. Then while researching “Borden’s Meat Biscuit” I was researching Havana–I needed a street name–and came across a story about something that happened in Havana. I knew I wanted to write about that something, but didn’t know how–and this resulted in “The Don’s Cinnamon.” (That “something,” which I’m being cryptic about here, is the solution to Burke’s case.) And then “The Don’s Cinnamon” led to “The Moor.” So, sometimes these chains develop.

When it comes to voice–I like using the first person because it gives immediacy. I want to pull the reader into the moment, and first person is the most direct way. But I also like it because it imposes limitations. I don’t want my fiction to get bogged down in researched detail–a danger for historical fiction. The story needs to be about the story. So the first person provides that needed limit–I can’t have the characters say something they wouldn’t actually say. They can’t go off on paragraphs of context.

The voice itself usually comes from reading period writings and also, simply, thinking about who this character is. It’s easy to get caught into antiquated ideas of speech–all 19th century people sound like X. But often those notions of speech are rooted in cliche. Focusing on the individual is key here–who he or she is, what he or she would say.

3. Gail Borden’s struggles in ‘Borden’s Meat Biscuit’ are, first of all, hilarious. I think in any century a ‘meat biscuit’ would be unappetizing. But one of the central tensions in the story — whether what he makes next will be genius — might be familiar emotional territory for a writer. Did you find that some of what you imagine Borden was going through resonated with you?

What? Failure? Humiliation? Failing the ones you love? Oh, I don’t know anything about that. Ha ha. You know, to be honest, I’m not sure if I made such a direct connection between my own experience and Borden’s when I was writing the story. (That was years ago, though–2006-2007.) I came across Borden–he’s a real guy–and found his life so interesting I had to right about it. And yet, what you’re saying is right here–there’s a reason his story resonates. It’s what we go through as writers–always the next project, that’s the one that’s going to succeed, that’s the one that’s going to bring happiness. And it’s that last bit that’s so tough. That next project will succeed. But will it bring happiness? Doubtful.

And to say that’s a problem just for writers is, of course, myopic. It’s a problem for humans.

By the way, Borden does find success. He goes on to invent condensed milk (he’s that Borden) and becomes quite wealthy. But that didn’t have a place in the story.

4. ‘The Moor’ has a unique narration — it almost reads like a dossier. But at the very end of your story, your narrator acknowledges his own biases with regard to exactly what happened to Hieronymus Burke: “as long as we don’t know his end, why not grant him this last happiness?” What’s wonderful about that moment is that of course the narrator can’t actually grant the man himself anything — but do you have that impulse yourself as a writer?

For me, that ending turned out to be as much about the project of historical fiction–at least, as practiced in these stories–as it is about the character of Burke. (It was my editor at Graywolf, Steve Woodward, who helped me see this.) That is, why was I doing this? Why write these stories? Not to portray history. If you want straight-up history, then read historians. Writing fiction that deals with history requires invention, taking liberties. So in some ways this thinking about Burke was a way to own that rather than be nervous about it. To own the invention and realize that the invention is the point.

5. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Deb Ball?

I’m not sure yet. This will be my first Deb Ball of any sort. But I am looking forward to meeting my fellow debutantes. (Or, in the case of Celeste Ng, re-meeting–we crossed paths at Michigan, though she likely remembers me only as the person who let his coat-laden chair fall on her legs in the Hopwood Room while he looked on helplessly and awkwardly.) Also looking forward to meeting more people from One Story–you guys do wonderful work. We need more like you.

Announcing the 2014 One Story Literary Debutantes!

One Story is thrilled to announce our 2014 Literary Debutantes:

harlem.debs

• Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans

• Rachel Cantor, A Highly Unlikely Scenario

• Amelia Kahaney, The Brokenhearted

• Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You

• David James Poissant, The Heaven of Animals

• James Scott, The Kept

• Ben Stroud, Byzantium

SAVE THE DATE and raise a glass as we toast these seven One Story authors who have published their first books in the past year. The One Story Literary Debutante Ball will take place on Thursday, May 22nd at Roulette in Brooklyn, NY and include music, dancing, food, and specialty cocktails. It is our most important fundraising event of the year. It is also a lot of fun. Sponsorship Tickets will be on sale April 1st. Individual Tickets will be on sale April 10th. To discuss sponsorship opportunities for the One Story Literary Debutante Ball please contact maribeth@one-story.com.

Patrick Ryan new Editor in Chief of One Teen Story

PRyanWe are delighted to announce that Patrick Ryan will be joining our staff as One Teen Story’s new Editor-in-Chief.

Patrick Ryan is the author of the story collection Send Me and three novels for young adults: Saints of Augustine, In Mike We Trust, and Gemini Bites. His stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, Tin House, One Story, The Iowa Review, Yale Review and elsewhere. From 2009 to 2013, he was the associate editor of Granta, where he commissioned, edited, and published work that went on to appear in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, The Best American Non-Required Reading, The PEN O’Henry Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize anthology.

Ryan is also the author of One Story Issue #53 “So Much for Artemis,” which was re-printed as a promotional issue of One Teen Story, when the magazine first launched. Patrick Ryan will replace former Editor-in-Chief Pei-Ling Lue, who took One Teen Story through its first year, publishing authors such as Matt de la Peña and Francesca Lia Block.

“It’s a terrific honor,” Ryan said. “One Teen Story has already shown us that lovers of young adult fiction are as eager for short stories as they are novels, and I’m very excited to be coming on board.”

“Patrick Ryan understands both sides of the publishing desk—as an editor and also a writer,” said One Story co-founder and Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti. “He played a huge part in raising Granta’s profile over the past few years, and is a force for good in the literary world. We’re so lucky to have him joining us.”

“We’ve seen such enthusiasm for One Teen Story this past year from readers and writers,” said Publisher Maribeth Batcha, “and are excited that Patrick Ryan will be joining our team at this crucial time. Having published three young adult novels of his own, Patrick is uniquely qualified to build on this support and increase One Teen Story’s visibility and reach in the Young Adult world. We look forward to working with him on this growing publication.”

One Teen Story is a literary magazine for young adult readers of every age. Each issue features one amazing short story about the teen experience. One Teen Story is published by One Story, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that publishes One Story, the award-winning publication that features the best of today’s literary short fiction. One Story, Inc. is supported by individual contributors and by foundations and corporations including the National Endowment for the Arts, NYSCA, and Amazon.com. For more information, visit www.oneteenstory.com.

UPDATE: Read Patrick Ryan’s interview with Ron Charles in today’s Washington Post!

Introducing 2013 Debutante: Douglas Watson

theeraofnotquiteOn June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we’ve been introducing our Debs through a series of interviews about their debut book experiences.

For our final debutante interview, we’re talking to Douglas Watson, author of the collection The Era of Not Quite, published by BOA Editions and winner of their Short Fiction Prize. The Era of Not Quite includes “The Messenger Who Did Not Become a Hero” published in One Story last month.

Douglas Watson’s debut story collection is chock-a-block with deaths, births, sea and land voyages, excursions to the library, philosophical asides, and things like wolves. People fall in and out of love, walk in and out of buildings, take two steps forward and two steps back. Futility is a theme of the book, but so is the necessity of trying. Recently, Freebird Books in Brooklyn hosted a book launch event for Watson, and as a finale, Doug sang a song he’d written for the occasion, “The Era of Not Quite,” accompanied by Anthony Tognazzini on percussion and One Story’s own Hannah Tinti on ukulele. Click below for the musical madness, then read on about cheese, secrets, and fairy tales.

How did you celebrate when you found out you had won the BOA Short Fiction Prize and your first book was going to be published?

I think I did a kind of off-kilter jig and grinned up at the tops of some skyscrapers. They didn’t seem as big as the news about my book! I’d been playing phone tag with Peter Conners, the publisher at BOA Editions, and I was on my coffee break at work when we finally got each other on the phone. I remember it all very clearly: it was a warm night, and I was working overtime copyediting a royal-wedding-themed special issue of Time magazine. I’d prefer not to measure the readership of my book against the readership of that special issue. Anyway, so I did a jig, swigged some coffee, and then walked back to the Time & Life Building and all this copy about Kate Middleton and what’s-his-name. No subject on earth interests me less than British royalty, but still, it was a very good night.

The final story in your collection, “The Messenger Who Did Not Become a Hero”, is One Story issue #177. I know that you published this story with us only months before your book release but has anything happen in the time between your publication in One Story and the release of your book?

Gosh, so much has happened just since One Story accepted my story for publication. It’s amazingly good timing for me, having the story come out just before the book comes out. I don’t know of another literary magazine that can match One Story‘s reach. If there are other such magazines, I want them to know that I love them and look forward to working with their editors! Anyway, I’ve heard a lot of nice things from readers about the “Messenger” story. And I’m very excited to do a jig at the Debutante Ball.

Each of your stories seem to be not-quite fairy tales. When it comes to storytelling and fairy tales, do you have any favorites or influences?

The not-quite-fairy-tale thing is something I just fell into. It’s been a million years since I’ve read any of the old fairy tales. Of course I would recommend Donald Barthelme’s retelling of Snow White to any reader, even someone with no sense of humor and a dwarf allergy. But Barthelme was doing something different; he brought a completely modern, or I suppose postmodern, voice and aesthetic to an already existing tale, whereas I discovered, sort of by accident, that I simply liked writing in the style of a fairy tale, modernity and postmodernity be damned.

I think when you write a fable or fairy tale, you have the ability to at once be a bit silly and also go more directly at the big stuff, as in: “There once was a girl who was sad. Why was she sad? Well, it was because her whole family had died in a train accident. She didn’t smile for the next ten years, but then one day at the market…” Etc. I don’t know if that made any sense. By the way, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is one of my favorite books. I don’t know if one would call it a book of fairy tales or what exactly, but it is very, very good. And then there are George Saunders’ Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, but those are not exactly fairy tales either. Some of Lydia Davis’s stories have a kind of fairy-tale flatness to them. There are so many great books out there, I don’t know why we try to write new ones.

In your story “Against Specificity”, you write, “Nor is it connected with your father, or Indiana, or any of the many things that state represents.” Doug, what does Indiana represent?

To me it represents a single long, boring drive I took across the state in the spring of 2004. I was visiting a few campuses as a prospective MFA student, and the drive west on I-70 from Columbus, Ohio, where I eventually enrolled, was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I mean, life can be dull, but this was taking it to another level. I grew up amid hills in Pennsylvania, and as I drove across Indiana, I got excited every time I-70 went up twelve feet in order to cross over another road. “Woo-hoo! Look at the view!” I would say. Of course, I’d started my drive in Boston and had spent entirely too many hours alone in the car by the time I got to Indiana. So I was crazy, and the country was crazy—the 2004 election season wasn’t a calm time, if I remember correctly. The four American contractors who were killed and mutilated in Fallujah—that happened during my drive, and for the first time in my life I found myself tuning in to the Rush Limbaugh radio show. Limbaugh was out sick that day or something, but his stand-in said something like, Let’s kill a thousand of them for every one American who died. So everything was horrifying, and there I was in Indiana, and I remember feeling as if pro-Bush Indianans at rest stops were squinting at my Massachusetts plates and trying to decide whether to beat me up or just beat up my car. That stuff was only in my head, of course, but to a writer, that just makes it all the more real.

Anyway, none of this has anything to do with what Indiana represents. I actually don’t know what it represents, since I’ve basically never been there. I am sure that any two Indianans will give six different answers as to what their state represents.

What are you most looking forward to at the One Story Debutante Ball on June 6th?

Meeting the other debutantes and eating lots of cheese—I assume there will be cheese. Also there is the matter of that jig… But for real, I’m very pleased to be able to acknowledge the great debt my writing owes to my mentor Michelle Herman, who teaches at Ohio State. I’ve had a number of great writing teachers over the years, but Michelle is the one who said what turned out to be the most important thing for me to hear at a crucial time in my development as a writer. It’s something every novice writer ought to take into consideration. I think we’ve run out of room in this Q&A, but I promise to reveal the great secret to anyone who buys a ticket to the Debutante Ball. I’ll be the guy doing a jig over by the cheese table.